THE SIMPSONS: Comedy Progenitor

by Vic Browne

Though it is over two decades old, The Simpsons continues as one of the most successful shows on television and its impact continues to resonate throughout the world of comedy and animation.

Genre is the categorization of art and culture based on stylistic criteria. The study and process of this categorization is known as genre theory and is “based upon the idea that individual messages can usefully and meaningfully be categorized into discernible groups according to their structural elements” (Ott, Mack). Genres usually manifest themselves in one of two ways: historically or theoretically. Genres that emerge as a response to cultural demands and are familiar to their target audience are historical. These are the genres that have worked before and so shows are constructed utilizing similar genre components to repeat success. Some of televisions most popular formats fall into this category including legal dramas, talk shows and situation comedies or sitcoms. We can identify a legal drama based on certain historical components such as a courtroom setting, a morally righteous main character or technical elements like single-camera shooting and dramatic, non-diegetic music. These components (and more) have come to constitute a successful genre, trusted to work repeatedly and so are defined as historical.

Theoretical genres are identified to explain a social trend or occurrence. These are shows categorized based on viewer/societal reaction to them as opposed to being composed to adhere to viewer expectations. Theoretical genres usually emerge incidentally from the creators intentions and are theorized by critics and scholars who watch (Ott, Mack).

The Simpsons is an example of a theoretical genre as it was the first show of its kind to utilize all of the elements it has and was massively successful as a result. With origins steeped in traditional historical genres, the show is renowned for merging the traditional family sitcom with a subversive and absurdist sense of humor. This, with its (at the time) unique animation format, combined to create a whole new genre: the animated adult sitcom. At the same time the show’s success would come to patently influence the long standing traditional sitcom format as well. As a testament to its quality, the show and its influence can both still be seen on TV.

The family sitcom has been a popular genre since before television, going back to the days of radio shows (Sayles). For decades, following the popularization of televisions as household items, sitcoms all followed a very similar format: “a happy family where disagreements are laughably mild and easily resolved, the kids succeed in school, social handicaps are overcome, and finances are rarely a problem” (Miller). For years television presented what was mainly an idealistic view of life, but rarely a realistic one.

Following the romanticized worlds of shows like Leave it to Beaver or The Dick VanDyke Show in the 1950s and 60s, sitcoms in the 1970s began addressing societal issues with their stories. All in the Family famously covered topics such as racism (Dana, Rich “Sammy’s Visit”), homosexuality (Lear Styler, Rich “Judging Books by Covers”) and even rape. (Schiller Wesikopf, Bogart “Edith’s 50th Birthday”) But even as such pensive topics were addressed, it was done so through the sitcom lens meaning ultimately the result had to be, and more often than not was, a happy and resolved ending for all. In the 1980s, some sitcoms continued to evolve past the rosy-lensed worlds of the genre’s past, but few if any left behind the standard saccharin that separated sitcom families from real ones. When The Simpsons premiered in 1989 it did away with the notion that everything could/would be fine, and dozens of other sitcom conventions.

The Simpsons are depicted as a working class family. Homer is the father, a lazy, slow-witted but ultimately good hearted man. Marge is his wife, loving, nurturing and naively optimistic. They have three children: Son Bart, the 10 year-old troublemaker, daughter Lisa, the 8 year-old genius and musician, and Maggie, the six-month old baby girl. The family lives in the purposefully, blandly named town of Springfield in an unknown U.S. state and are surrounded by a town full of characters meant to parody typical American life.

Though drawn with little resemblance to actual people, the believability of these characters comes from the imperfections within their characters. After decades worth of sitcom characters too perfect to be human, Simpsons creator Matt Groening sought to create stories and plots along the same imperfect lines as his characters, revising the modern American dream to make it “more attainable” (Miller). A show like Full House, popular when The Simpsons premiered, misrepresented the American dream allowing audiences to escape reality while simultaneously condemning them for not being as perfect as the Full House family. Where The Simpsons succeeds is in recognizing no family is or could ever be perfect, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be happy. The family lives modestly on Homer’s middle-class, low-skill job salary and face economic hardship, but are content to live simply. The show trades unattainable perfection for “truly human-like qualities and blatant faults” (Miller) giving its yellow-skinned, animated characters a level of humanity that, until then, had not been popularly seen in the show’s live action contemporaries.

In addition to changing the function and meaning of stories and characters, The Simpsons influenced the technical and aesthetic style of sitcoms. Before The Simpsons sitcoms were nearly all shot multi-camera style in front of a live audience or were edited to appear so. A laugh track was used to accentuate jokes and add to the atmosphere of “live in front of an audience” even when shows were shot on location or closed sets. The Simpsons creators chose to not use a laugh track, relying on the cleverness of their writers jokes to and motivated by a desire not to cosset their audience by cuing their laughter with a track. Though on an aesthetic level audiences could hardly look past the fact that they were watching a cartoon, the removal of a “studio audience” allowed for a full immersion into the world the characters inhabited and for the jokes to seem more organic, i.e. not delivered for a reaction. Years later this idea would influence a number of popular comedies to adopt a level of realism not previously seen in successful sitcoms, beginning with the BBC series The Office (Strong).

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s 2001 series The Office was one of the first successful sitcoms to follow in this Simpsons mold. Co-creator and star, Ricky Gervais, has constantly cited the show as one of his influences and the main reason he wrote The Office without a laugh track as a mockumentary (“Ay, Caramba, The Simpsons turns 500″). Gervais was influenced in smaller more precise ways by the show as well:

The Simpsons has influenced my work in a very specific way, with the cutaways. They’ll go to someone saying something  stupid and it’ll come to the guy looking at him and then  it’ll come back.  And it’d go one more time back shot -reverse-shot and we did that a couple times in The Office…its just that one more shot which I like, they  just push the envelope with that and it always makes me  laugh. (Ricky Gervais on The Culture Show).

The Office became internationally lauded and began a paradigm shift in the world of sitcoms. Arrested Development premiered in 2003 using a format somewhere between mockumentary and typical single-camera, even using the ambiguity of this to comedic effect at times.(Saunders Dornetto, Amodeo “Forget Me Now”) Arrested Development’s nearly irredeemable family of characters owes to The Simpsons sensibility as well.

With such an unorthodox approach to its characters and portrayals how was the show able to find such success?  The Simpsons came out just after successful live-action sitcoms Married…with Children and Roseanne which had given audiences their first taste of “traditionally unlikable” main characters. Though the more mawkish sitcoms such as Full House and Who’s the Boss? continued to rate high (ClassicTvHits), the success of the former two shows “suggested audiences were ready to have a pop at the American dream” (Griffiths). Popular sitcom leads like the abrasive Al Bundy and Roseanne Connor helped usher in a new kind of main character, but The Simpsons still possessed something these shows did not. Critics noted:

It’s because [creator] Groening has invested [the characters] with a sensitive vulnerable side that most  sitcoms with human beings lack. In the standard sitcom, kids are obnoxious, moms are long-suffering, and dads are  dopes. They’re the cartoons; the Simpsons are for real (Tucker).

Buried beneath all the jokes, wild animation and neo-charecterizations is the most important component and the area where The Simpsons truly found its legs: emotional resonance.

The show offered a unique take on, not just its characters, but the American family as a whole. “The Simpsons are the American family at its most complicated, drawn as simple cartoons. It’s this neat paradox that makes millions of people…concentrate on The Simpsons (Tucker).

Along with this new approach to the family dynamic, The Simpsons was among the first shows to parody aspects of society as a whole. Never before had a show so poignantly parodied serious issues including corrupt media and politicians, religious restrictions, environmental issues and more. Premiering during the end of the cold war and written and conceived by a generation that came of age during Watergate, the show seemed to flagship a new attitude and therefore new sense of humor into the public conscious and the show’s success and quality made it impossible to ignore. A disdainful remark about the show by President George Bush during his 1992 presidential campaign is often cited as a major detriment to his popularity in that election which he would eventually lose. “People who enjoyed the show didn’t want to be told that they were watching something bad or stupid, or something bad for their kids” (Griffiths). Almost symbolically Bush had compared The Simpsons disfavorably to fictional TV family The Waltons, insisting American families aspire to be more like the latter. Audiences disagreed. The show’s ratings and reviews soared while sitcoms like The Waltons fell to the wayside and Bush lost the election.

Despite having produced over 500 episodes over twenty-three seasons, The Simpsons continues to be one of the highest rated  (Bibel) and most critically acclaimed shows on television. It is still regularly nominated for major awards including the Emmys (Outstanding Animate Program 2011), the Annie Awards (Annie Awards: Legacy – 35th Annual Annie Awards) and the Peabody Awards (George Foster Peabody Award Winners) in categories including writing, voice-acting, animation and others. It holds the Guiness World Records for Longest Running Sitcom by episode count, Most Emmy Awards won for an Animated TV Series and the longest running animated TV series to name a few (20 Years of The Simpsons). The show redefined the genre as it dominated it and its influence is acknowledged by everyone from guy-comedy guru Seth Rogen (D’oh! Seth Rogen write a Simpsons Episode) to female-comedy connoisseur Tina Fey (West).

Though it’s difficult for the show to seem very fresh after more than twenty years on the air, The Simpsons continues to deliver its unique brand of clever and subversive humor successfully and maintains a place among the top tier competitors it helped inspire in the worlds of comedy and animation. It is the greatest show ever made and if you disagree, you can eat my shorts.

Works Cited

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